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An attempt to dissect the Pope Francis effect |

Young Star

An attempt to dissect the Pope Francis effect

IN A NUTSHELL - Samantha King - The Philippine Star

In every country he’s been to, Pope Francis has left a trail of thunderstruck believers in his wake. Depending on who you ask, the feeling has been likened to the high after a particularly kick-ass job/school/life performance, the cathartic, emotional purging after a good cry, and the tight constriction of the chest when you feel your heart is about to break. 

Media people have been quick to dub it the “Pope Francis Effect,” which I’ll be calling PFE, for short. In Italy, the PFE can be credited for almost single-handedly boosting the country’s tourism in the span of time since Pope Francis assumed office. To wit: barely eight months in, and the average number of foreign visitors to Rome was up by eight percent. 

In the Philippines, the general consensus is that those afflicted show symptoms of being completely overwhelmed—bursting into tears, face contorted as if in pain, barely able to hold back the flood of emotions.

Five days later, and people are still reeling from the PFE. My mother, who braved the weather and throngs of the faithful to catch but two glimpses of the Pope, still talks about him with a glazed look in her eyes, as if transported back to that moment.

There are many other stories about the miraculous manifestations of the PFE, not least of which is its proven ability to turn a crowd of wet and fatigued pilgrims into a community of arm-waving, cheering, candle-holding hippies. The lack of sleep is forgotten, the irritability left behind. When members of my family arrived home after the Luneta Mass—approximately 19 hours after they left to line up—they only just realized how physiologically spent they were.

A perusal of articles and comments online reveals that nobody really knows how the PFE works, other than they’ve witnessed it, or experienced it themselves. Fr. Luciano Felloni, a parish priest of Caloocan, has the opinion that the PFE comes from the Pope’s transparent demeanor, making him more accessible to his flock; a mirror of Christ’s own humility. On TV, countless interviewees have repeatedly spoken about feeling as if they were in the presence of Christ.

The operative word seems to be “charisma.” The term is thrown around a lot, but it’s hard to put a finger on it precisely. Is it inborn? Acquired as you level up in life? As a theological term, charisma means “gift of grace.” But it can also mean authority, or in a broader sense, power.

Pope Francis is a fountain of charismatic authority. His sprinklers are on 24/7, drenching us in an awesome aura of collective well-being and eagerness to obey. In the case of charismatic authority, commands are obeyed precisely because followers believe in the extraordinary character of the leader, whose authority transcends existing or customary practices. Think Gandhi, Jesus Christ, even Hitler. It’s the purest kind of personality politics.

In stark contrast to this lies the somber realm of legal-rational authority, involving obedience to formal rules which have been established by regular, public procedures. Think P-Noy at the helm of state machinery.

While both are legitimate (or legitimated) exercises of power, charisma makes the more attractive case. Indeed, there’s a whole world of difference between wanting to follow, and simply being compelled to. Juxtapose the figure of P-Noy, representative of the sanctioned use of physical force to incite obedience, alongside Pope Francis, whose only compelling force is his shining moral character. Already, battle lines are drawn, the winner decided. P-Noy loses, of course. And perhaps that’s why the PFE works so well.

 Our president and what he represents merely become a point of reference, one that pales greatly in comparison to the incorruptible, unblemished, pork-barrel-free image of the pontiff. Pope Francis is only further deified in the process.

On another note, maybe the key to solving the PFE is less about the Pope and more about the crowd itself. After all, crowds can be contagious; causing people to act in a certain way, exerting influence through the anonymity of belonging, for that moment, to a large group of people. Not that we don’t have our own free will, but because the emotional energy is stronger, we can lose ourselves and let go. The mob overtakes the self, to put it crudely, assuming a life of its own that is manifested in those intense reactions to the PFE.

Still pushing the envelope, perhaps the PFE is transactional. After several hours’ sacrifice to see the Pope, the PFE is what the faithful are rewarded with in return for their efforts. It could be self-induced, or it could be a real act of grace. But at the end of the day, all these are theories we can just throw up in the air, tipping our hats to the unfathomable appeal of the pontiff. And that’s faith.

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